Friday, November 27, 2015

To Delhi via Dubai: The United Ultra Long Haul Experience

This trip report will focus on my first major flight with United Airlines. (I've flown the old Continental long distance a couple of times, on their US-India nonstops. This while CO was still with SkyTeam.)

This past Sunday, I had occasion (see post below) to need a last minute ticket to the Subcontinent. Fares in coach on SkyTeam were through the roof. I had a bunch of Avianca LifeMiles stored up (a good way to get affordable business class fares internationally). Not really expecting to find award travel availability, I went to the LifeMiles website anyway. I needed a flight late in the evening on Sunday, that would let me take the morning Masses in my parish, and give me enough time to get to Hartsfield, 90 minutes away from Athens. Flights out of Atlanta, Miami and Chicago were unavailable. Out of Boston, there was a weird connection via Geneva and Zurich, on Swiss Airlines. It looked risky: short layovers at both airports? I don't think so. United's popular (and lucrative) Newark-Delhi flight was available only a few days ahead. Air India (EWR-BOM/JFK-DEL) was unavailable, though I could have shelled out more points and flown First Class a few days later. And then, I plugged in Washington Dulles. IAD-DXB on UA, connecting to AI on to DEL, with an ~4h layover. Bingo! A few minutes later I had booked that flight, followed by a decently priced flight from Atlanta up to Dulles on Delta.

The 4+ hour layover at Dulles was more than enough to pick up my bags from the belt off the Delta flight, and hike them over to United's premier check-in counter, which was practically deserted. "This is a one way, sir? When are you returning?" I said I wasn't sure. "Well, we have to put in something for immigration." I pointed out that I had permanent residency status in India (Overseas Citizenship of India) and showed her my card. "Oh that's all I needed to know!" A few minutes later the bags were checked through to Delhi and I received the boarding pass for the first leg. I would have to go to the transfer desk in Dubai to get my Air India boarding pass. I headed out to the curb, and was picked up by a classmate from seminary. There was more than enough time for a leisurely dinner nearby.

The United lounge at C17, IAD

Thursday, November 26, 2015

What is this love? It is Christ

This past Sunday, I returned to India to take care of my ailing mother. I had asked for a leave of absence from pastoral ministry starting in early 2016. Circumstances dictated that I advance that date a little. I left the parish with very little notice, and received an outpouring of love, support, prayers and sympathy, for which I am ever grateful. I'm most grateful to Archbishop Gregory, our Bishops and my pastor, for their generosity and kindness at this difficult time.

This is the message that I shared on my Facebook page, on Sunday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

"It is not good for man to be alone." (Gen 2:18) With these words, the Sacred Scriptures point to the destiny of the human person, that he is made for interpersonal communion.

In this life, we only get a foretaste of the intimacy that is the life of the Most Holy Trinity, which is the destiny of every human being. Married persons experience it in a particular and deep way, in their complete and total gift of self to each other, and the way that intimacy brings forth life -- in the children the Lord sends them, or in other ways in their lives. For us parish priests, a particular manifestation of that intimacy is the bond with our parish, our family. This weekend, I was reminded of just how deep that bond is.

We are made for a life of deep love, of communion, of loving and being loved, of knowing and being known. Our society has truly forgotten this, as we wall ourselves up in our individual bubbles, as we buy into that false promise that only by "expressing our self" do we truly find ourselves. Man truly finds himself only in a sincere gift of self, in giving himself away. "He who loses his life will find it."
My few short years at St. Joseph have underscored this truth of the Gospel. I am so grateful to this beautiful parish, to the numbers of dedicated souls, in love with the Lord, yearning to love God and neighbor more and more. Thank you. It aches me to leave so abruptly. The tears shed that I saw mean more to me than you realize.

What is this love? It is Christ -- it is the gift of the Son, returning all to the Father, in the Holy Spirit. We are meant for this kind of life. We are meant to live a companionship, to belong to each other. I thank the Lord for revealing that in a new way in my time with y'all.

Please God, our paths will cross again. Until then, we will be united in our faith, in our prayers, and in the mystery of communion that is the Holy Eucharist, the heart of the Church.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Virgin Atlantic Experience: Part III

Airbrakes deployed, with KATL below.

LONDON-ATLANTA, November 17, 2015
VS103, Airbus A330-300, Economy Cabin, Extra Legroom Window Seat

On a cool, grey, cloudy morning (does London have any other kind?), I arrived back at Heathrow's Terminal 3, and went into the Virgin Atlantic check-in area, to an Upper Class check-in desk. The barcode for Upper Wing access was added to my boarding pass, and my passport checked. I took the elevator (sorry, lift!) up to the second floor (um, first floor!), and this time, found the Upper Wing door, and scanned in the bar code to access the security screening area. There were no lines, and I was through in about five minutes. A short walk through brightly lit Duty Free shops, and I was at Virgin's Lounge H, with about 80 minutes to spare before boarding. I ordered the English Breakfast (poached egg, Cumberland sausage, baked beans, toast, mushrooms, tomato. Yum!) and tea, followed by that Delhilicious cocktail that I quite liked, and viewed with astonishment my Facebook newsfeed that was blowing up over the question of resettling Syrian refugees in the United States.

The Virgin Atlantic Experience: Part II

THE RETURN: DELHI-LONDON, November 16, 2015
Boeing 787-9, Premium Economy Cabin

I arrived about two hours prior to scheduled departure (1400) at Terminal 3 of Delhi's Indira Gandhi International airport. There wasn't much of a crowd around the Virgin Atlantic check-in area. I was directed to the Upper Class check-in desk (no customers ahead of me). The agent offered me a reasonably priced paid upgrade to Premium Economy up to Heathrow. I accepted: a good and fairly economical opportunity to check out their much vaunted PE product. At Delhi, Delta Platinums get Priority check-ins, but no lounge access. I cleared immigration (which can take forever at peak international departure times at night. In the middle of the day, it was smooth and quick), and got a sandwich at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf Company. One of the offerings was intriguing:

The Virgin Atlantic Experience: Part I

Recently I had to make an urgent visit to the Subcontinent for personal family reasons. The most economic last-minute travel option that also afforded me Delta SkyMiles credit was Virgin Atlantic. (The nearest was Lufthansa. I'm glad I didn't abandon Delta & partners, given their recent labor trouble.) The route involved multiple stops (ATL-JFK-LHR on the way out, on Delta metal, connecting to VS for the LHR-DEL segment) and long layovers in London -- 11 hours during the day on the way out, and about 15, overnight, on the way back.

The first interaction with Virgin was their call center. I called in to see if I could get decent seats on the VS metal segments. The representative was friendly and downright jovial. "You're a Delta Platinum? No problem. No charge for the extra legroom seats." I got an extra legroom middle seat on the LHR-DEL leg, and windows on the two VS segments on the return. He then asked the origin of my name, and proceeded to share this his wife was of Indian origin. It's a kind of informality about ethnicity and provenance that would be unthinkable in the US. And finally, "It's your first time? You'll love it. You'll never fly Delta again!"

VS300, Boeing 787-9, Economy Cabin, Extra Legroom Middle Seat

A visit to the Brompton Oratory on Remembrance Day

An impressive facade
Recently, I had some more international travel, where I ended up with a long layover in London on a Sunday (thanks to Virgin Atlantic. Feel free to read my trip reports on the VS experience). I decided to take advantage of this and visit the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, better known as the Brompton Oratory. Once the biggest Catholic Church in London, that distinction passed to the Westminster Cathedral in 1903. I'm a bit of a Newmaniac, and of course, the name of this community comes up regularly in certain Catholic circles, so it was a no-brainer as to how I'd spend this layover in the British capital. (Newman, actually, wasn't a part of this community; he was with the Birmingham Oratory, which I'd visited on a Newman pilgrimage during a seminary break, back in 2012). The day before my travel, I called the number for the Oratory and was connected to the head sacristan, who said they would be very glad to have me there, and of course I could offer a Mass on the Lord's Day!

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Prepare for judgment!

[Posted originally on Facebook. A meditation, that grew from listening to the Dies Irae by Antonín Dvořak] 

The month of November is a time to pray especially for the dead. It is also a time to meditate on the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment.

In our Catholic circles we don't often talk about the Judgment anymore. Read the saints and the preachers of ages past, and they always warned of the Judgment. I read in a Facebook post earlier today the comment, "I believe in Jesus the Redeemer. Not Jesus the Judge." Convenient, perhaps. But false.

One day we will be called to give an account of our life. Yes, the Lord is merciful, and His mercy, as St. James puts it, triumphs over judgment (Jas 2:13). However, His mercy IS His judgment, because with God, all is one simple ACT. To the unrepentant sinner, His mercy will appear as judgment, and a most terrible judgment. We should never presume upon His mercy, and thus be complacent with sin. Presumption itself is sinful, and is an abuse of the Lord's patience, and love which has as its goal, our conversion.

As we prepare for the Year of Mercy called for by the Holy Father, we should also examine our lives with respect to our own particular judgment, and let us not be fooled, there WILL be a particular judgment, no matter what the world says. The Gospel gives a good examination of conscience in the twenty fifth chapter of St. Matthew: visiting the sick, the imprisoned; feeding the hungry and clothing the naked -- the source of what the Church has called the corporal works of mercy. However, it would be a terrible blindness to think that that this is opposed also to personal moral conversion. Or that because I have been kind to strangers, or to the poor, it excuses sinfulness in my life elsewhere. There is no opposition between virtue and the works of mercy. In fact, the works of mercy make no sense without personal virtue, and the constant battle against sin. The Lord wants us to be holy (1 Thess 4:13). He wants to present the Church to the Father without stain or wrinkle or blemish of any kind! (Eph 5:27)

Yes, this is all a work of grace (Eph 2:8). But that doesn't mean it is not also our effort, a striving, a struggle. The same St. Paul who speaks so eloquently about grace, also wishes to win a crown (1 Cor 9:24), and fight a fight (1 Tim 6:12), and pummels his body and makes it a slave (1 Cor 9:27). We are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1). There are many things that will exclude us from the Kingdom, if unrepented (1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21)!

Today I was at the house of a poor family -- the mother had died very tragically and very unexpectedly, leaving behind a wake of bewildered sorrow. The readings for the Vigil for Funerals remind us to always be prepared, to be awake and prepared. We never know how much time we have.

How would you fare if you this earthly life of yours were to end today? Would you be ready to face the Just Judge and his terrible Judgment seat?

Ven. Fulton Sheen tells us that we fear death because we do not prepare for it. Let us prepare for our death! We should die every day! Die to self, to evil, to selfishness, to sin! Let us be well prepared to meet the Lord, with our lamps well prepared, and lit with oil (Matthew 25:7, 10).

What does it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world, but lose his soul (Mark 8:36)? From the Lord who puts this to us, may we never hear, "Truly I tell you, I do not know you!" (Matthew 25:12)

This terrible interpretation of the Dies Irae (sadly, no longer used at Requiem Masses) by Dvořak is a powerful meditation on the Judgment. May it serve as a preparation for us for our own Judgment.

Ven. Fulton Sheen on the Judgment

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Aeroflot Experience: Part II

The morning sky at Sheremetyevo 
Moscow Sheremetyevo to New York Kennedy, SU 100, October 30, 2015 

[This post is the next installment of "The Aeroflot Experience: Part I"]

Most of the 100 or so folks onboard SU 2401 from Rome turned towards the signs for baggage claim and passport control. I followed the sign to international transfers. There is a passport inspection station, then a security check. Despite the early hour, the duty free shops were open.  (I strolled through the alcohol section. There was, of course, a bewilderingly wide selection of vodka brands. I couldn't find Stolichnaya, however!) My next flight was in the same terminal (D). There are two lounges, close to each other: the Jazz and the Blue lounge. I chose the Jazz lounge for my 4h50m layover. It was relatively empty, with a decent selection of drinks, but fairly limited food options. I found a spot with two adjacent swivel chairs, where I could stretch out. After some rehydration and juices, and plugging my phone in to charge, I slept for a solid two hours. When I awoke, the place was very crowded. The WiFi couldn't keep up, and I kept getting booted off the network. At about 9:00 am, they called for the boarding of SU 100 to JFK. (In my haste and sleepiness in departing, I left my phone charger behind. Could've been my phone!) There was a long line in the general boarding section. I cut ahead to the SkyPriority lane, and was soon heading down the jetway to the gleaming Airbus A330. The layover experience at SVO was painless. The airport appeared to be like any other major international airport in Europe, and nothing at all like the few memories of my 1989 visit to the USSR!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Aeroflot Experience: Part I

An Aeroflot A321 flying as SU2401, FCO-SVO, Oct. 29, 2015
Rome to Moscow, SU 2401, Thursday, October 29, 2015.

Months ago, I was looking for an affordable one-way trip from Italy to the US in late October. The SkyTeam majors: Delta, KLM, Air France and Alitalia, like so many other major carriers, tend to have exorbitant one way fares. However SkyTeam member Aeroflot, the Russian airline, offered a very affordable one-way fare, and that too in their new Comfort Class (a separate Premium Economy product, such as the cabins onboard Alitalia and Air France). Aeroflot has decent reviews, and is a far cry from its Soviet days, and it seemed like a fun new aviation experience, so I booked the ticket.

[I actually have flown Aeroflot once before, in fact precisely during the Soviet era, back when I was in high school (1989, to be precise). That has to be a blog for another day, however. Also, I need to find the few photos I have from that trip for a TBT post!]

Eucharistic Miracles: A visit to Lanciano

Monstrance containing the miraculous Host, Lanciano
In the High Middle Ages, a veritable explosion of Eucharistic miracles occurred. (This site lists all the known ones -- and they date back to the earliest years of the faith, and have continued to occur into our own day and age.) It seems that Providence responded to increasing doubt about the Real Presence with such singular interventions. The practice of Eucharistic Adoration grew at least in part in response to this wave of doubt, and in 1264, Pope Urban IV established the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, for the public veneration of the Consecrated Host, and the Angelic Doctor himself composed the liturgical office for the feast. Here's a map (PDF link) of all the known Eucharistic miracles in Italy.

Raphael: "The Mass at Bolsena" (Wikimedia) 
Lanciano, near the southeastern Adriatic coast of Italy houses one of the earliest such miracle (PDF link) known, precipitated by the doubt of a Basilian Monk in the 8th century (some 400 years prior to the other famous Italian ones). While celebrating Mass, the Host turned into flesh and dripped blood. The miraculous product was carefully preserved. In the 13th century, the care of the church passed to the (relatively) newly established Franciscan Friars, the Conventual branch of which continues the custody of the miracle. The present monstrance housing the miracle dates from the middle of the 18th century. In the 1970s, scientific tests done established that the miracle is indeed human flesh, a bit of heart tissue, with the blood group AB. Pilgrims continue to be drawn to this, and other, miraculous sites. Last week (Monday, October 26), I had the opportunity to visit Lanciano.

Close up of the miraculous Host
A beautiful, quiet and uneventful 2h40m drive — leaving the chaotic morning traffic of Rome, and the nondescript suburbs of the Eternal City, followed by a slow climb to the Apennines, the central spine of the Italian peninsula, breathtaking views, and many tunnels cutting through the mountain rock — and one is on the Adriatic coast. Highway A50 runs fairly close to the shore between Pescara and Bari, and periodically the shimmering blue of the sea peeks through the hills and pastures.

Lanciano is a picturesque hilltop town, with winding, cobbled streets in the historic Centro. I find an easy parking spot in the main square, not a hundred yards from the Church of St. Francis, the site of the miracle. A large group if Italian pilgrims arrives at the same time. Inside the main church, Mass is underway — in English! I find the sacristan who informs me that there are three English-speaking groups in the church right now. The Italians will have Mass in the crypt (the site of the miracle itself). There is an Indonesian group expected in about 20 minutes, and I could concelebrate with them. The Church closes at 12:30 for the afternoon. I go and wait and pray in the chapel of St. Clare, right behind the display containing the monstrance with the miracle. A large group of Filipinos arrive — they kneel and bow and sign themselves in front of the monstrance. Several pray and touch the glass case reverently. Tablets and phones and cameras appear.. The Americans and Irish finish their Mass. The Indonesians don’t show up. An elderly Franciscan friar sets up the altar in the same chapel for me to say Mass.

Of course, since the altar is set up versus populum, I end up offering the Holy Sacrifice with my back to the miraculous host behind me. Idiotic! However, given the time crunch, I didn’t want to try and explain to the elderly Franciscan that I’d like to reverse the altar settings.

The Franciscans had everything set up for a Mass in English for the Indonesians — however, their photocopy of the Missal was of the now superseded 1970 ICEL translation. So, for the first time that I can recall, I offered Mass using the text of the current (2010) edition of the Roman Missal in English found on the iMissal app on my phone! [If I’d known this was going to be the case, I’d have asked for an Italian Missal. The Sacristan seemed a little surprised at my request for a Latin Missal …]  The Mass was for, appropriately, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

Offering Mass using my phone to get the correct translation!
It was such a joy and blessing to offer the Holy Sacrifice at this sacred place, where the Lord’s mercy powerfully intervened to strengthen the Church’s belief in His abiding and Real Presence in the Eucharist!

After Mass, I had a few minutes to visit the crypt (where the miracle actually took place), in the excavated ruins of the original Basilian Church — it was a bare room with stone walls, and a stylized modern cross and square altar added recently.

Remains of the 8th century chapel where the miracle occurred. 

I have now had the privilege of visiting the sites of two Eucharistic miracles: Balsenna-Orvieto (with the Atlanta NACers in 2012), and now Lanciano.

Piazza near the Church of St. Francis, Lanciano

Corporal with miraculous Precious Blood, from the Miracle at Bolsena, Cathedral of Orvieto (2012).

[There has also been a Eucharistic Miracle in India -- in 2001, in the Archdiocese of Trivandrum, Kerala! And a very famous one in Buenos Aires in 1996, the former See of the current Pope.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Air Choice One Travel Report: Chicago O'Hare to Burlington, IA

[Ignore what Google says about the cost. My ticket cost $56!]
UPDATE: Landing Video on YouTube now.

On a trip to visit classmates from seminary across the Midwest, I stumbled across Air Choice One, a small, regional communter airline, that offers flights to regional airports under the Essential Air Service program. For about $56, I was booked on a flight from O'Hare to Burlington, IA, on a little Cessna Caravan.

In the weeks leading up to the flight, I enjoyed some reports from previous travelers: this blog, and this video, for instance.

On the day of the flight. I called the number listed for Chicago operations, and was told that the flight was on time. I showed up at Terminal 3 of O'Hare at about 5:40 pm for a 7:00 pm departure to Burlington. Air Choice One's check-in counter is located at the far left end of the terminal, next to Spirit Airlines. There was no one ahead of me at the counter. Check-in was routine (except I was asked my weight). A carry on tag was added to my backpack, and a regular baggage tag for my check-in luggage.

The check-in bag had to be dropped off at a nearby TSA X-ray screening point, after which I entered the long line for security (a rarity for me, since I am normally TSA Pre-Checked when I fly Delta). By about 6:15 pm, I cleared security and visited the restroom, as the airline's website advises. At counter L10B (next to a crowded Spirit Airlines boarding area), I was told to wait next to doorway 9. They were waiting for a connecting passenger to come through, and would start boarding as soon as she showed up.

The crowded Spirit Airlines boarding area, from doorway L9, ORD Terminal 3
At about 6:50 pm, an agent lined up all the passengers on the two Air Choice One flights (going to Burlington, IA and Decatur, IL), in order of seating, Row 1, Row 2, Row 3 and Row 4, and then lead us down a set of stairs to the tarmac. There were two Cessna Caravans parked next to each other. The Burlington passengers were directed in to the one on the left. You drop your bigger carry-on bag before boarding (my backpack, but not my camera bag. Others carried purses, or any smaller hand-held personal item). We climbed up the narrow stairs, in order of seating, by row.

Walking on the tarmac 

Blurry photo of the boarding process 

The pilots were already in their seats. The captain turned to us to give a very brief welcome and safety message -- pointing out the exits, their heights off the ground, the location of the fire extinguisher, the flight time to Burlington (about 90 min with headwinds), and that it would be bumpy at take off and landing because of headwinds. He was interrupted by the ramp agent yelling weight distribution issues through the window. Then she turned to me and said,, "You ... sir ... yes, you, the heavy set guy in Row 3, we need you to switch seats with the lady in Row 2." Gee thanks. "That would be me!" I said, and raised my hand, eliciting chuckles from my fellow travelers. Unfortunately, Row 2 faced the rear of the aircraft, so I didn't have a clear view of the pilots and the instrument panel. The seat did swivel (but did not recline), so during the flight, I could crane my neck to get a forward view.

View from my window [Before being moved to Row 2].

The seats are nice and wide, and plush leather. 
A few minutes after 7, the door was closed, the engine started, and we were off! We taxiied about 10 minutes and then lined up onto runway 28R. The single prop engine roared to full thrust, and we hurtled down the runway, taking off after a short take-off roll. Take off was indeed bumpy, and we lurched and bounced, gaining altitude as the airport slowly receded. Flaps went up at 1000 feet, and a few minutes later, we stabilized at our cruising altitude of  6,000 feet. From that point on the flight was quite uneventful. The twinkling lights of Chicagoland gave way to the relative darkness of northern and central Illinois, punctuated by small clusters of light. The seat recline was either broken, or disabled, so I didn't try to sleep (also, given the face-to-face seating, I didn't really have much space to stretch my legs). All my fellow passengers slept. I read a book, and periodically twisted around to get as much of a view of the instrument panel as I could.

Missing recline button. 
[Cropped close up of the instrument panel. It took several shots on my Nikon D5300, set to manual focus (not wanting the autofocus light to distract or draw attention to me!), to get this shot. You can see the altimeter reading 6000 feet.]

About 10 minutes prior to landing, the Captain announced our descent and approach into Burlington. We slowly lost altitude. I craned forward, and saw as the runway (12/30? I can't be sure), came into view, as we bumped and bounced out of the night sky, lined up, and coasted past the threshold onto the runway (altitude, if I recall correctly, around 700' MSL). We turned off the runway to park in front of the tiny terminal building. The Captain thanked us for our business, and asked us to remain seated until the door was opened, after which we disembarked, picked up our carry on baggage, and walked to the terminal. Barely five minutes later, our checked-in bags were delivered to the terminal door.

All in all, it was a fun ride. Everyone was courteous, but, at least to me, seemed functional, efficient and somewhat cold. I missed Southern warmth!

On the ground in Burlington!

The deserted terminal at Southeast Iowa Regional Airport (KBRL) 
View of the terminal from the parking lot